BY: CHEF KATHRYN KELLY
If you’ve been downtown at Fernandina Beach recently, you may have caught a glimpse of the cruise ship docked at the port. While beauty is unquestionably in the eye of the beholder, for those of us in her orbit, her undisputed beauty has spawned an exquisite love affair.
Seven Seas Explorer, as she is known, is my place of work. As an Executive Chef with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, I am responsible for the culinary enrichment programs onboard Explorer and her newly christened sister, Seven Seas Splendor. I lead a passionate team of Chef Instructors, and together we teach classes on board in her state-of-the-art cooking schools and lead intimate culinary tours in over 40 ports around the world.
How did I find myself working on Explorer? It’s a long story. After completing my doctoral studies in epidemiology (everyone knows what that is now) at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s and working briefly at the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, a few colleagues and I launched a health risk appraisal company right as the internet was born. The rest, as they say, is history. I liken it to being shot out of a cannon. By 2007, I was ready for a quiet life on Amelia Island, walking the beach with a dog I adopted from Nassau Humane Society.
But soon, however, I was ready for the next chapter. Letting passion be my guide, I enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). My former colleagues thought I had lost my mind, but I was in heaven. After graduating, I was hired to launch the first hands-on cooking school at sea by Oceania Cruises, where Chef Jacques Pepin serves as the Executive Culinary Director. Of course, Jacques is a legend in the culinary world, as well as on the pétanque courts of Amelia Island. The popularity of The Culinary Center cooking schools on Oceania Cruises Marina and Riviera inspired the building of two Culinary Arts Kitchen cooking schools on Regent Seven Seas Cruises newest vessels, Explorer and Splendor. Today, I manage all four onboard cooking schools.
I first saw Explorer at her christening in 2016. Dusk was falling on the sparkling harbor of Monaco. Megayachts were bobbing in the harbor, and the air was full of the thyme-laced scent of summertime in the south of France. My culinary team and I had arrived a few weeks earlier, preparing our cooking school for her students and guests. Heralded as the most luxurious ship at sea, her first 750 guests were to be dazzled, pampered, and feted. For you Downton Abbey fans, it was like the Queen was coming for a visit.
That night, my cabin had a birdseye view of the star-studded christening event in the world’s most glamorous city. Champagne flowed as the black-tie affair got underway. The highlight of the evening was a private concert by world-renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli, followed by fireworks over the harbor.
Since her christening, I have sailed the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean on Explorer. A typical day for me onboard is teaching a class or leading a culinary tour. Our classroom holds 18 guests, each with an individual cooking station. I design the curriculum for the classes, balancing cooking techniques with the cuisines of the places we travel.
My favorite days are when I take a small group of no more than 15 guests on a culinary excursion. On these Gourmet Explorer Tours, which we offer in ports around the world, we find the local markets, restaurants, and experiences that chefs love, like cooking lunch in a Greek taverna with a local family, visiting the spice market and kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, or drinking vodka during a caviar tutorial in St. Petersburg.
While I am a passionate student of the art, music, language, and architecture of a place, nothing helps me understand the world like food. Where did the food traditions come from and what are the signature recipes? What do people eat during holidays and what is a simple meal at home? How do the growers, farmers and fishermen figure into the food chain? What are the popular street foods?
I love my job. I’m on board one of our four ships six months of the year, and the rest of the time I work from my home office on the island. Now that Explorer is here, I ride my bike to the Port of Fernandina every day to say hello to her. Someday she will return to do the job she was built to do, and I will, too. If you have a chance to visit her, I hope you’ll see her as I do—an elegant lady waiting for her guests, crew, officers, and chefs to take to the seas again with Regent Seven Seas Cruises.